As a general rule, when a team loses, its players look bad. And when a team wins, its players look good. There will almost always be exceptions to this, but it’s pretty par for the course, ultimately.
Throw in the fact that it’s preseason, and it’s important to keep emotions and perceptions in check.
But dang, did Sam Bennett look really, really good against the Coyotes.
Bennett was ranked as a potential first overall draft choice, and ultimately chosen fourth overall, for a reason. He scored 91 points in 57 games in his draft year, not to mention the 118 penalty minutes tacked on. Then there was his abridged 2014-15 season, in which he only dressed for 11 OHL games… and scored 24 points in them. A quick sweep out of the playoffs later, and he was ready for the NHL.
And when we say ready, we mean ready. Bennett, then just 18 years old (thanks, Jim Hughson!) dazzled immediately, looking like he fit right in even though he had missed most of the season and was only just starting his NHL career. His four points in 11 playoff games were outstanding, all circumstances considered; even more outstanding was the 46.40% 5v5 CF (+2.11 relative) – seventh out of 18 regular skaters through the postseason.
A year of his entry-level contract burnt, Bennett stepped into a modest rookie season, consisting of 36 points in 77 games (and a 48.83% 5v5 CF). He followed that up with more of a disappointing sophomore season: 26 points in 81 games (and a 48.70% 5v5 CF), and in need of a new contract.
Whereas Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau earned $6+ million in their second contracts, the consensus that eventually came to fruition was that Bennett would have to settle for a bridge deal. And indeed he did: a cap hit of $1.95 million over the next two seasons.
Which brings us to now: two preseason games played, his new contract not officially kicked in yet, and looking a whole lot more like the player we expected when he was drafted fourth overall.
The ideal linemates
Now, I don’t think anyone is suggesting Sean Monahan loses his projected spot in the lineup after sitting out one preseason game. That would skew towards the positive overreaction territory.
Bennett filling in for Monahan did give us a few of things to look forward to:
- Should Monahan go down, at least the top line shouldn’t suffer for it.
- Micheal Ferland starting the season on the top line is, in all likelihood, going to be a worthwhile experiment. He doesn’t have the same skill set as Johnny Gaudreau and Bennett, but he didn’t look out of place on that line at all.
- Bennett deserves powerplay time.
It also signified a drum that’s been beaten since this past season: Bennett needs to play alongside good players in order to turn in this kind of performance.
When Monahan returns to the lineup Bennett won’t have the chance to take a regular shift alongside Gaudreau and Ferland. Fortunately, though, he has Kris Versteeg: maybe not someone on quite the same level as the Flames’ top scorer, but a highly skilled, highly competitive player in his own right, who can keep up with and feed off of Bennett, if the most recent playoff series in particular was any indication.
And then there’s the unknown quantity: who else fills out that line?
There are Troy Brouwer and Curtis Lazar, two recent acquisitions by the Flames who perhaps haven’t shown what management was expecting out of them. Brouwer hurt Bennett through the previous season (and Versteeg to an extent as well), while Lazar hasn’t exactly shown much through this preseason to suggest he can play on Bennett’s level.
And while it would be one thing to merely put together a decent third line that can chip in every now and then, the potential Bennett has exhibited since he was drafted and in spurts to present day would be wasted on that. That publicized centre depth the Flames have could finally be coming to fruition should Bennett take his preseason performance and the four-goal game of old and push it forward into this season. And that’s where you go for three lines that can score, not two and two-thirds.
So… who? In the other preseason game Bennett dressed for – one in which it’s pretty much universally agreed he was the Flames’ best player – he played alongside Emile Poirier and Spencer Foo, neither of whom may be safe from cuts. Probably the most impressive forward prospect this exhibition season has been Mark Jankowski; does he slot in on that wing?
Or do the Flames sign Jaromir Jagr to fill it out? (I’m sorry; what is memed may never die.)
Does that give Bennett the linemates he needs to have to display such enthralling success and give the Flames a truly deadly top nine?
With a number of cuts expected in the coming hours, the picture should become clearer then. And with three preseason games to go, it should sort itself out in time for the start of the regular season.
Hopefully it works out – because this version of Bennett is far too good to waste.